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There is a relationship between school and suicide. I wanted to examine this relationship in September because this month is suicide prevention month, and while there are many factors that influence suicidality, educational trauma may be the single greatest category of experiences contributing to suicidality.
Teen suicide is one manifestation of educational trauma: the inadvertent perpetration and perpetuation of victimization by educational systems against consumers and producers of the system. Suicidality is the experience of wanting to die, thinking about how one might do it, and actually attempting suicide. Suicidality is one way high school and college students express the impact educational stress is having upon them. Suicide is the third cause of death in those aged 17-24, and the second cause of death in college students.
The lifepath of a student is idyllically thought of as a path of learning, curiosity, growth, and development. For many students, the stress of life starts in early childhood and escalates until college, where it manifests as suicidality. I've distilled many aspects of how school can be a path to suicide.
Suicide Has Killed More College Students Than Alcohol for Over 30 Years
In 2011, the study, "Leading Causes of Mortality Among American College Students at Four-Year Institutions," was commissioned by Dr. James C. Turner, at the University of Virginia, while president of the American College Health Association. The study demonstrated that more college students' die from suicide than alcohol related deaths. Although suicide in college students is half that of the general population, rates remain unchanged in the last 30+ years.
High School Pressures Contribute to College Crises
This problem isn't exclusive to college students. High school students are facing unprecedented challenges as they plan for unknown futures. In her documentary film, Race to Nowhere, Vicki Abeles, presents stories of cheating, over-scheduling, and abuse of stimulant medication among high school students. The impetus for her to make this film and expose these stressors, came when a local 13-year-old committed suicide after receiving a poor grade on a math test. Students nationwide are experiencing burnout stemming from the pressures associated with qualifying for college. Race to Nowhere captures this phenomenon. Unacknowledged and untreated stress related conditions turn into serious problems when students arrive at college ill equipped, drained, and demoralized. Suicidality is an outcome and option for a considerable amount of students.
Gender Differences, Performance Anxiety, And Suicide
Female high school students experience more suicidal thoughts and attempts than males. However, male high school students complete suicide more frequently. One concern drawn from the research of Sian Beilock, PhD of the University of Chicago is how messages of stereotypes such as, "Girls find math difficult", can create something called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is a situation where individuals are at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong. When females encounter academic tasks that are difficult, they risk validating their inferior intellectual acumen. This can be terrifying when one's whole life and self-esteem are based upon academic performance. This is particularly true for our female students. When we drill students with the unquestioning need to pursue college, we place their whole being in the quest. This quest imposes stress and may be one source of girls' being more suicidal than their male counterparts.
The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide
Bullying takes healthy people and turns them into helpless victims with mere words. The bullying situation in America is severe enough to result in teen suicide. According to a 2008 study conducted at Yale University, published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, bully victims are two to nine times more likely to have suicidal ideation than their non-bullied counterparts. According to US Department of Education statistics, 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying. Bullying is an epidemic of trauma in schools, and a major contributor to suicide risk.
How Early Childhood Education Academic Pressures May Contribute to Educational Trauma
According to Martha Bridge Deneckla of Johns Hopkins University, some students are ready to learn to read at age three, while others become ready as late as nine years old. When we expect all students to reach literacy by the same age, we neglect individual differences that fall within the window of normal development. For many students, this is where academic stress and failure begin. I believe there are emotional and functional consequences of having four to seven year olds practicing their letters and numbers, when they may not be neurologically prepared for the task until around nine years.
When we prioritize early acquisition of academic skills over opportunities for gross motor movement, it may result in educational stress for students. When students are deprived of moving their bodies, they become physically restless, agitated, and may look like they have disorders of hyperactivity. It's an expected reaction to feel like a caged animal when the normal inclination is to move, seek, learn, explore, and the situation requires silently sitting still. Furthermore, risk factors such as poverty and bullying for example, increase tension in the body. Essentially, we may be setting the tone for disastrous consequences in early childhood.
People Are in Denial About How Bad the Educational System Really Is
Psychologist Dan Ariely says that we are very dishonest with ourselves and tell stories that amplify our sense of self. This phenomenon perpetuates maladaptive behaviors embedded in the American culture of education. According to social psychology's fundamental attribution error, we explain our own poor outcomes as a function of situation, but interpret the poor outcomes of others as due to their personality. I believe this phenomenon underlies some of the pains our students are suffering. In this nation, many parents and educators accept the educational system as adequate, despite contradicting evidence. Major influencers of education see their contribution as wholesome and effective, while attributing problems within the system to its consumers. PTA's raise money for slashed programs and consider this a remedy to the problem. The fundamental attribution error is the same dynamic seen in situations of abuse and misused power differentials. In education, it is contributing to the perpetuation of maladaptive patterns that unfortunately, leave students considering killing themselves. Education isn't the only thing we deny. The severity and presence of trauma is another one we don't like to look at, yet also surges through education.
Education Overhaul Is One Way Of Managing Student Stress And Suicidality
One way to cope with student stress is through suicide education and prevention efforts, which are in use nationwide. I'll add however, that educational restructuring is more necessary than ever, if we truly want to foster healthy development and reduce the levels of desperation that cause students to kill themselves. Educational restructuring must include respect for individual differences, as well as national tolerance for life paths that don't include a college degree.
Follow Lee-Anne Gray Psy.D on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrLeeAnneG